With worldwide media coverage dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, one would be excused for forgetting that voting in the Labour leadership election closed today. This Saturday, the United Kingdom will have a new leader of the opposition, and it so desperately needs one.
I joined the Labour Party in September 2015 and left it in April of 2019. Largely due to my long-term disdain for its leadership, its failure to provide a coherent position on Brexit, then the crucial issue of the day, and its refusal to tackle anti-Semitism. I have also, frankly, had enough of party politics. But I rejoined to vote in this year’s contest. It is simply too important.
Peter Harris, Assistant Professor at Colorado State, made this crucial observation back in 2016:
‘When the Labour Party chooses a leader, its members are not merely selecting a national spokesperson or an organiser-in-chief. Instead, every Labour leader since Ramsay MacDonald has automatically been slotted into one of two very important constitutional positions: Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or Leader of the Opposition.’
As ‘Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition’, the Labour Party has a constitutional duty to hold the government to account in parliament. To do this, its leader not only needs the support of their own MPs but also to assemble a credible ‘government in waiting’. Throughout his tenure, Jeremy Corbyn had failed categorically on both counts. His supporters’ insistence on creating a ‘social movement’, in reality an out of touch hard-left social club, at the expense of the parliamentary party, was an inexcusable dereliction of this vital duty.
The next Labour leader needs to do three things. The first, and most immediate, is to eradicate the cancer of anti-Semitism from the party’s ranks. The second is to unite the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and put a hold on factional wrangling. The third is to provide the country with a credible government in waiting, to take Labour out of the wilderness and turn it, once again, into an election-winning machine.
To that effect, a victory for Rebecca Long-Bailey would be a disaster. As a key Corbyn ally, she has turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism, failing to challenge the leadership at Shadow Cabinet, as well as some of her own supporters on the campaign trail. Unsurprisingly, she won a dismal 1.4% of the vote when the Jewish Labour Movement balloted its members.
Long-Bailey remains an unquestionably factional candidate. At best, a victory for her would only inflate internal conflict within the party. At worst, it might well herald a split greater even than that of 1981. Worst still, she appears to show no inclination to understand why Labour was defeated so badly last December.
She still blames the media and that ever so convenient scapegoat of Brexit. The revelation that the election result came as a complete shock to her, whereby the ‘worst-case scenario’ was going to be a hung parliament, is a damning inditement on her political instinct and strategic judgement. Her campaign is being run by some of the same Corbynite operators who were instrumental in Labour’s election defeat. Her focus on open selections shows that she is still more interested in taking to Labour members, not former Labour voters.
Alternatively, there is much to like about Lisa Nandy. She has led a smart and energetic campaign. She is a good media performer and an experienced parliamentarian. As someone who resigned from, and never returned to, the Shadow Cabinet is 2016, Nandy is a fresh face who is largely unassociated with the Corbyn project. She has been persistent in criticising the leadership over its approach to the anti-Semitism crisis.
On electability, Nandy supporters will be quick to remind you that she ‘gets it’. As a founding member of the Centre for Towns, she has talked about Labour’s decline in its historic heartlands years before the ‘Red Wall’ fell. She has accordingly made empowering local government the central message of her campaign.
Yet much of her analysis is shallow and artificial. Nandy has pitched herself as the ‘Change or Die’ candidate, but it remains unclear as to what that change is supposed to mean. Indeed, her focus on ‘ideas’ has often meant speaking in vague euphemisms.
Some of it is also simply wrong. Towns are not failing, and no longer voting Labour, because we have invested too much in cities. Because we haven’t. Much of Birmingham has been ‘left behind’ and underfunded just as much as Bolsover. Birmingham Ladywood is among the most deprived constituencies in the country and one of the safest Labour seats, while Bolsover just elected its first-ever Conservative MP.
The difference is often demographic. Older, non-university educated Britons voted Tory overwhelmingly, no matter where they lived. Post-industrial towns simply have more of them relative to younger graduates and ethnic minorities, who form the bedrock of Labour new electoral coalition. There is no magic cure that helps Labour win back towns without having a difficult conversation about older social conservatives, and there is no similar solution to revitalising Wigan that doesn’t do the same for Manchester.
I should repeat that I do like Lisa Nandy and hope she makes a return to the front bench. But her central analysis is flawed and unlikely to help Labour win back power.
That leaves us with Keir Starmer, a candidate who much of the commentariat has decried as ‘boring’. Is he? Good. I have had enough of personality contests. With the government deploying the full power of the state in its fight against the coronavirus, including a series of necessary yet undoubtedly draconian measures, what Labour needs right now is not an exciting maverick. It needs a statesman, able to effectively scrutinise Boris Johnson’s every move while transforming Labour into a credible shadow administration.
Starmer possesses one quality unique for someone in high politics, in that he has actually accomplished something outside of politics. Scoff all you want, but that matters to a lot of people. His record as Director of Public Prosecutions is impressive, not least in his opposition to the worst authoritarian instincts of the New Labour government. Jeremy Corbyn has long claimed to have supported human rights while providing cover for some of the worst tyrants on the planet. Keir Starmer has a record of defending liberty from where it matters, a position of power. He has a proven ability to lead and manage a large organisation.
In terms of Labour’s internal struggles, Starmer’s pitch as a unity candidate holds great merit. He is widely respected across the PLP and throughout parliament. To that effect, he represents the best chance of mitigating Labour’s factional warfare. He is not a terribly exciting choice, but a necessary one.
Starmer is also, it needs to be said, almost certainly going to win. He has led every opinion poll and came decisively ahead in nominations from constituency Labour parties. The question now is whether Starmer wins on the first ballot. If he does, he will have a greater mandate to enact meaningful reforms of the party apparatus, kicking the likes of Seamus Milne and Karie Murphy out of head office, and removing dead weight from the Shadow Cabinet. Labour’s spokespeople will be at the forefront of rebuilding its credibility, and God help them if Richard Burgon is still around to be part of that.
In the longer term, Labour must build a narrative that appeals to the wider public, not a tiny left-wing fringe. It must start talking in a language that people understand. No one cares about how their local candidate is selected. No one cares about socialism or calls each other ‘comrade’.
Labour must once again become the party of social mobility and aspiration. It must stop fetishising class warfare, another thing which no one cares about. It must be patriotic and at least appearing to care about national security. It must stop moaning about the media and develop a serious communications strategy. It must figure out how to unify not just the party but the country too.
These things will inevitably take time, something which Labour currently has plenty of. It has at least four more years of opposition, and possibly five more after that. The party needs a steady pair of hands to begin its journey from the wilderness. It needs a manager, not another revolutionary.
Photo by Rwendland on Wikimedia Commons.